Sunday, March 22, 2020

the last book I read

Imaginary Friends by Alison Lurie.

Roger Zimmern is a newly-qualified professor of sociology at Corinth University (fictional, but apparently modelled on Cornell) in upstate New York. Keen to impress the senior figures in his department, and the semi-legendary Tom McMann in particular, he readily agrees to participate in a study McMann is doing of a religious cult in a nearby small town called Sophis.

The Truth Seekers, as they call themselves, have a rather unique brand of vaguely Christian belief: certain extraterrestrial beings from the distant galaxy of Varna (all of whom have rather perfunctory names like Ro and Lo) have been observing Earth (their civilisation being well in advance of ours) in preparation for an in-person (or quite possibly in-betentacled-space-lizard) visit when the time is right and humanity has attained the necessary level of enlightenment. The unlikely conduit for all this information is a young woman called Verena Roberts, who lives with her aunt Elsie in Sophis and has attracted a group of a dozen or so acolytes who gather to hear the messages from Varna. These tend to arrive via a form of automatic writing which Verena goes into a sort of trance to receive.

Zimmern and McMann infiltrate the group, initially under the pretence of just being regular people who happen to be in the area, although this subterfuge doesn't last, and as it happens the Truth Seekers are quite chuffed to be deemed important enough to attract interest from high-falutin' big-city book-learnin' academic types. So the sociologists are accepted and quickly become part of the group, including being expected to fall in line with Ro's increasingly arbitrary behavioural guidance: some fairly severe dietary restrictions (no meat, for instance) and only non-organic fibres in clothing. But you have to comply, because you don't want to be the bad apple in the group whose non-compliance makes our glorious saviours put the flying saucers in reverse and bugger off back to Varna, do you?

Part of the reason McMann was so keen to study a group of this type was that pretty much all of them eventually encounter a problem: some sort of Coming is predicted, and eventually a specific date is attached. And since the whole thing is a mass delusion, eventually that date will pass and it will become apparent that the Great Event has not happened, and the group will either fragment and wither, or find some way of rationalising things and carrying on with its belief system reinforced (which seems surprisingly common, as utterly barking as it sounds).

Sure enough Verena announces that Ro and his mates (Bo and So and Zo, I shouldn't wonder) will be coming to Earth in a very literal physical undeniable landing-the-flying-saucer-on-the-front-lawn kind of way in just a couple of weeks' time, and everyone should ensure that they are spiritually prepared, laying off the corned beef and wearing drip-dry Crimplene slacks for the big occasion. This is the big day for Zimmern and McMann: what will happen? How will the group react when the inevitable happens?

All appears to be going as predicted when, despite much standing around chanting in the garden midnight comes and goes and no little green men have knocked at the door (although there is always the possibility of the entire fleet having been accidentally swallowed by a small dog). It's Verena's Aunt Elsie who finds a way out of the situation: what if Ro and his chums did visit, but via some sort of eleventh-dimensional pan-galactic gateway type shit beyond the puny power of our visual cortices to register, and moreover what if Ro were even now occupying the fleshy mortal form, Tom McMann? McMann thinks for a minute and then goes: yyeeeesss, I think you may be right there, Elsie.

Unsure whether McMann is simply playing some complex sociological long game or has in fact taken leave of his senses, Zimmern gets what appears to be a conclusive answer the following morning when he and McMann return to the house. First Elsie drags McMann off upstairs for a close-quarters personal consultation with Ro of Varna, then just as Zimmern encounters Verena in the kitchen there is a knock at the door and Ken, a former group member and would-be suitor of Verena, arrives, whereupon McMann goes berserk, banishes Ken from the house at gunpoint and is shortly afterwards carted off by the police.

Zimmern subsequently visits McMann in the mental institution he's been confined to and finds himself unable to reach a conclusion on McMann's sanity. Was McMann's going along with Elsie's bizarre theory just part of a dedication to completing the study, whatever it took? Similarly, is McMann's claim to now be faking a continuing mental imbalance in order to conduct a study of the institution from the inside to be taken at face value, or is he just a loony?

This is the third Alison Lurie novel on this list, after The Truth About Lorin Jones and Foreign Affairs, but the earliest one in terms of its date of publication - it was her third novel, published in 1967 (the other two are from the 1980s). I'm not sure if that has anything to do with why I found it
less satisfying than the other two. Basically once the set-up is complete and the sociologists are embedded within the group very little of any consequence (or, arguably, interest) happens until right at the end when McMann suddenly loses (or appears to lose) his marbles. It's unclear who the target of the satire is here - if it's the cultists (and it presumably it at least partly is) then there's a suspicion of shooting fish in a barrel. To be fair there is probably also a more subtle point being made about the impossibility of observing people's behaviour from close quarters without unconsciously influencing that behaviour in some way. Nonetheless for a fairly short book (less than 300 pages in my Penguin paperback) it sags quite a bit in the middle, and could probably have been 50-60 pages shorter without suffering too much. I mean, it's not actually bad, but if you want Alison Lurie books then Foreign Affairs and The War Between The Tates are probably better places to start.

Friday, March 06, 2020

headline of the day

Not much competition for this title today: it pretty much has to be this one.

It's unclear from the article whether Shatner just emerged from a lengthy session with his and his ex-wife's respective legal teams proudly bearing a sloppy brimming bucket of warm horse jizz, or whether some other arrangement was put in place. Either way, I'm sure the legal negotiations were tough and gruelling, but Shatner and his lawyers showed some spunk and pulled it off. I expect you can make up your own jokes.

Monday, March 02, 2020

the last book I read

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest.

Peter Sinclair is twenty-nine. Or is he? He lives in London. Or does he? He's been spending a period of self-reflection in a borrowed cottage following a series of misfortunes - bereavement, redundancy, the break-up of a relationship - and trying to reconnect with his life by writing a sort of autobiography. Or has he?

Let's at least start by taking things at face value, or we won't get anywhere. Following his various misfortunes Peter Sinclair has borrowed a rural cottage from a family friend, rent-free for a period on the understanding that he will undertake various renovation and maintenance work during his stay. To try and knit his traumatised mind back together he undertakes a work of autobiography, trying to call upon all his memories to make sense of his life and the situation he finds himself in. After a couple of false starts he quickly abandons any attempt to write a "straight" factual account of his life, instead conjuring up a whole fictional world and embedding various loosely-disguised people and locations from his real life in it; this allows him the freedom to write what he wants to write and hope that some sort of deeper, truer truth will emerge from the fictions.

Parts of his supposedly "real" life turn out to be fictitious, though, when his sister Felicity (with whom he has a fractious relationship) turns up at the house and scolds him for having done no renovation work, and cluttering up the spare rooms with scores of empty bottles, and carts him off to her place in Sheffield so she can keep an eye on him. Peter takes refuge in his manuscript, and this time we follow him in.

Peter Sinclair is twenty-nine, and a citizen of the city of Jethra in the country of Faiandland. He's never left Faiandland before, but he's going to now, as he's just won a lottery to take a cruise through the scenic Dream Archipelago to the island of Collago, where he will be the lucky recipient of a medical treatment ("athanasia") which will make him effectively immortal. First port-of-call is the lottery company offices on one of the nearest islands, where he meets Seri, who works for the company; they soon embark on a relationship and she offers to accompany him to Collago.

So this is all pretty straightforward, right? Jethra is London, the cruise represents some unfulfilled wish for travel and excitement, the athanasia represents, ooh, I dunno, fear of death or something, and Seri is just Peter's "real" ex-girlfriend Gracia with some of the inconvenient spiky corners (the argumentativeness, the penchant for self-harm, the sexual voraciousness) smoothed off.

Hold your horses, though: the Collago clinic is a bit more, well, clinical than Peter expects, and it is revealed that one of the side-effects of the athanasia treatment is a complete loss of memory. For this reason they ask patients to fill out a detailed questionnaire before signing the release forms. Aha, says Peter, I can save some time there, because I have this manuscript I wrote a short while back in an attempt to explain my life, and which I always carry around with me.

So the treatment is applied, and Peter's medical team (with help from Seri) attempt to rebuild his memories from the manuscript. The trouble is, they're having to edit as they go, because this is a semi-fictionalised account of Peter's life with all the names changed. This "London" place is obviously meant to be Peter's home town, Jethra, but some of the other stuff is less easy to decipher. What and when was "World War II"? Who is this "Hitler" guy? Who is Gracia?

We return to London, and to Gracia, now tentatively reconciled with Peter. All is not completely peachy, though, and part of the reason for this is Peter's increasing detachment and distraction. This, it turns out, is because the two worlds now seem to be bleeding into each other in some way and Peter is having occasional visitations from Seri. We assume these are hallucinations, but they are wholly convincing, and on one occasion, after Peter follows Seri on a lengthy wild goose chase via the Tube out to the London suburbs, seem to include lengthy periods of crossover into the alternate world. During this period Gracia attempts suicide, and when she recovers she and Peter have a climactic quarrel during which it emerges that the pages of his manuscript are blank, at least to everyone except Peter. As London and Jethra bleed into one another the novel ends halfway through a sentence, just as all the various versions of Peter's manuscript have done throughout the novel.

The trick of having a book-within-a-book mentioned in the text of a novel and then having it emerge at the end that the text of the novel is the text of the book-within-a-book is one that has featured here before, though not embedded in such an intricate puzzle-box mechanism. The obvious surface reading here is that Peter is a guy in our familiar "real" world having some sort of stress-induced breakdown, and that the imagined world is indicative of his mind's retreat from reality, perhaps temporary, perhaps not. This put me in mind of Doris Lessing's powerfully baffling Briefing For A Descent Into Hell which follows a similar pattern.

This is not the only possible reading, of course, an alternative one being that the intense apparent "reality" of the London world is a false memory implanted by the botched rebuilding of Peter's memory from his own fictionalised manuscript after the athanasia process. As this blog post says, rightly I think, how receptive you are to that reading of the text probably depends how much "science fiction" (the usual caveats apply here) you read, since it requires you to accept the Jethra world as the "real" one.

This is also a novel about writing, though, and the reader is expected to take note that it's absurd to view the London scenes as somehow more "real" than the Jethra ones, because of course the whole thing is made up. It's also about how fragile our sense of "self" is, and how that sense might survive a traumatic event like a complete brain-wipe, even if we could somehow restore the contents of our brain afterwards from a completely faithful backup, especially when you consider that you could do the same restore into a completely different blank brain in a completely different physical body. Would this be "you", too?

This is a much more structurally tricksy book than the other Christopher Priest book on this list, Inverted World - also the only other one I've ever read, though I have seen the film of The PrestigeThat doesn't necessarily mean it's a better book, although on balance I think it probably is. Many echoes of other books here - as well as Briefing For A Descent Into Hell I was reminded of Never Let Me Go for both the prominent plot point of some slightly hand-wavy medical treatment and the slipperiness of questions of identity (in that case because of genetic cloning rather than mind-wiping) and Solaris for some similar questions about the nature of "self" (there it was simulations wholly generated out of thin air). The whole looping structure of a book essentially writing itself (compared in the introduction to my Gollancz SF Masterworks edition to the famous Escher lithograph of two hands drawing each other) is also reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller.

In case it's not clear, I enjoyed The Affirmation very much; one reason I stress this is because I don't want Priest himself (still very much alive at 76) dropping in to harangue me in person, as befits someone who must occasionally Google his own name, if this slightly snippy intervention (assuming it's genuine, of course) on someone else's blog is anything to go by. This 2011 entry on his own blog reveals that he's not a man to shrug off an indifferent review, nor to allow the passage of thirty-odd years to diminish a grudge, even if his central point about reviewers barely reading the books they're tasked with reviewing is a reasonable one.

Lastly, The Affirmation is the first in a lengthy sequence of books in Priest's canon which carry two-word titles starting with "The". It's also the 21st book in this list to have a title in that format (i.e. The X where X is a single word) and the second on that list alphabetically, slotting in just behind The Accidental.